Everyone’s looking to voice over IP as the great hope for telecom. Though we’ve solved some of the reliability problems, Peter Cochrane asks: how great is it if voice networks become clogged with spam, just like your email inbox?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) looks to be the next big deal, a business disrupter that could change everything in the telecoms world.

The first service offerings have been launched and customer take-up has been rapid. Of course, the big selling point is a 10-fold price reduction over the telephone offerings of the incumbents. Other benefits include the end of charging based on distance and service, more customer control and choice and a bevy of new services not currently available from telcos. But like so many new developments, all is not necessarily as advertised on the box.

It is easy to criticise the telcos for being slow, ponderous, expensive, backward looking and controlling, though they have one redeeming quality that is the envy of IT – reliability.

Over 100 years of continual engineering development have led to performance standards from telcos that have yet to be attained by other industries. The transmission quality and call completion rate are monitored and maintained globally to a very high standard. And the established reliability of a local switch is the fabled 5 x 9s, or 99.999 per cent uptime – that’s a yearly downtime of less than five minutes. This is an impressive number that is not easily achieved without the duplication of switching and control circuits and power supplies. Contrast this with other technologies that we enjoy and you will see what I mean.

Such performance has led to the notion that you can always rely on the telephone no matter what. This is not something that can be said of mobile networks or indeed VoIP, where I sometimes think it would be nice to see reliability figures exceeding 9 x 5s (55.5555555 per cent).

Not that landline telephones have always been perfect. When I first started travelling abroad 44 years ago, making a telephone call could be tough. The service and standards were not uniform, sometimes phone service was not available at all and if it was, it was expensive. Human operators performed most of the functions including basic connectivity tandem fashion from one side of a town, county, country or continent to the other. In short, communication was controlled, costly and in short supply.

This changed rapidly with the age of electronics, fibre optics, satellite and radio to see us transit a halcyon period around 20 years ago when all the developed regions of the world enjoyed unparalleled service standards and availability. Total fixed line connectivity under the control of the customer became the norm. Then came mobility and everything changed again.

Today mobile phone development continues apace and it is the dominant mode with the old fixed networks lagging far behind. In the 15 years it took for this transition to occur, you might have thought that our past history would see us focus on unifying standards for the global benefit of all. Not so. All over the planet you can dial any country on a mobile phone by dialling the country code, area code and the local telephone number. For instance, +44.8473.600000. Yet there are some spectacular exceptions. In one region you can dial +44.8473.600000, whilst in another it has to be 0044.8473.600000 and in another 011 44 8473 600000. If you don’t get it right, you’ll hear the recording: “Your call cannot be connected as dialled, you have to select an international carrier, please consult your local yellow pages.” Excellent advice if you are up a mountain or in the middle of a desert.

Mobile phone users will no doubt have noticed that call and connection quality lacks the near certainty and voice fidelity of the landline phone network. However, we the users, and society in general, seem to have accepted that this is the price we have to pay for the mobile capability that we value so highly.

We might suppose that poor service is actually a consequence of the rapid mobile network deployment and a new and immature technology. There was certainly an element of truth in this in the early days. But the reality is we are now paying much more for much less in terms of quality. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way. It really isn’t a technologically defined situation; service is now almost entirely dependent on economics and markets, and specifically what users are prepared to put up with and what the suppliers can get away with.

Country-to-country service standards vary widely from the excellent to the almost useless, for example. This doesn’t make me happy as an engineer or please me as a user, but it happens to be reality.

So now, along comes the internet with uncontrolled network connectivity and unmonitored usage. As users we’ve gotten used to its clunky nature and have learned to put up with variable delays, congestion and massive content that is impossible to navigate in any rational or ordered manner. But we love it – it lets us escape the tyranny of the broadcasters and telcos and gives us total control and freedom for the first time in our communications history. When VoIP arrived, it looks like the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

But soon reality bit. The uncontrolled nature of the internet makes it unsuited for real-time services, whether audio, video or multimedia. Uncontrolled and unpredictable packet routings and delays make it impossible to guarantee a given service level. So the industry develops a series of hidden protocols that effectively convert the anarchistic packet switching to something resembling the ordered and controlled routing of the old circuit switched networks of the telcos.

Excellent work – it fixes the basic problem, except that is for one minor detail. There just isn’t enough bandwidth across the internet to replace the phone network. But there could be if the phone companies enter the fray or there is more network investment.

It is interesting to note at this point that around 80 per cent of the capacity of the internet is consumed by spam, virus, worms, spyware, denial of service attacks and other malware. This means those who moved to 100 per cent VoIP service have experienced the nasty surprises of sporadic service failures lasting from seconds to days. Not a disaster for home users, but critical if you use VoIP for business.

And what’s waiting in the wings? VoIP spam – an endless series of automated advertising and human enquiry annoyances delivered over a voice network. It looks like one step forward and two back unless we take action to curb that possibility along with others.

Dare I say it? Yes, we are going to have to resort to network controls. The only question is who will be in control – the telcos moving into VoIP, pure VoIP players, ISPs or users? My guess: we are all going to have to get far more responsible to get back to where we were 20 years ago.

Drafted on the EuroStar between Ashford, Kent, and Brussels. Despatched Liverpool Street in London via a Wi-Fi hot spot.